After “make-or-break” buildup, CNN commentators downplayed debates' significance

In the buildup to the first presidential debate, some CNN commentators called the event “a decisive moment” ; a “key opportunity” for Senator John Kerry; “the most important night of John Kerry's presidential campaign” ; a chance for the candidates to win “the very big prize” of undecided voters; or “a pivotal moment.” After the debate, these same CNN commentators said Kerry performed well -- but then downplayed the significance of the debates.

CNN host Wolf Blitzer:


A pivotal night in this presidential campaign, perhaps a decisive moment. A key opportunity for the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, to break through, to try to establish himself as a formidable candidate in this race.


That's a huge audience. A lot of people, of course, most of that audience has already made up their minds. But those undecided voters are still critical.


A defining night. I think everybody agrees potentially. This certainly could be a defining night. Historians will be writing about this for many years to come. [CNN, live debate coverage, 9/30/04]


So even if John Kerry decisively won the debate, we shouldn't jump to any conclusions, let alone on the final outcome on November 2, but even if there will be a significant movement in the poll numbers, the real polls, not these instant polls over the next three or four or five days. [CNN, News From CNN, 10/01/04]

CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield:


So you're planning to spend 90 minutes watching the candidates debate tonight? Millions of you say this is going to help you decide who you are for. [CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, 9/30/04]

For all of the hype, and God knows there's been a ton of it, this is the most important night of John Kerry's presidential campaign. He knows he's behind. He knows that 60 to 80 million people will be watching, and whether or not he can make that connection that he apparently has not yet made may be the pivotal point of the whole campaign. It actually is one of those events that we're not overhyping. [CNN, live debate coverage, 9/30/04]


I think John Kerry did a better job in debate terms. That's what -- you know, that's what the snap polls showed. That's what most of the experts, even the New York Post, a very pro-Bush paper, had its bipartisan panel say that Kerry actually did better.

But that's a different question from asking did they sway voters, because it's entirely possible that if a voter -- if enough voters have made up their minds, if the undecideds are smaller than our poll and the Bush campaign thinks it is, then it's perfectly consistent for people to say, well, I think Kerry won the debate, but I'm still voting for Bush because I think he's better on terror or Iraq or whatever. That's what we're not going to know for another two or three days.

And remember, four years ago the first snap polls of the first debate showed that Al Gore had -- quote -- “won on points.” But two days later when the stories appeared about his sighing and a couple of mistakes he made, then the opinion changed.

So, I really think, you know, much as I know, we're all fascinated by snap polls and voters with dials, we've got to wait a day or two to see whether or not this is going to have a political effect. [CNN, American Morning, 10/1/04]

CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider:


BILL HEMMER (CNN American Morning anchor): Well, here's an interesting question, too, that we posed in our debate on the screen for our viewers. “Will debates make much difference in your vote?” Only 18 percent say yes, which in a tight race could make the difference in this election. But if you notice the decline going back to 1996, do the debates no longer matter? Or do they no longer matter as much as they once did -- Bill [Schneider].

SCHNEIDER: What we're looking at here is evidence of the small number of undecided voters and the intense division of the electorate. Even more divided than in the Clinton years. Eighteen percent can make a difference if there's a strong tide pulling them in one direction. You know, that 18 percent of people who still aren't clear exactly how they're going to vote and are going to be watching those debates, the campaigns are spending tens of millions of dollars chasing them through every cornfield in Iowa and every factory in Ohio. They're a very big prize. [CNN, American Morning, 9/28/04]


Well, the viewers of this debate still think President Bush is tougher, more decisive than John Kerry. They do think John Kerry is a smoother talker. He explained himself, he presented himself better. But I've always said winning a debate does not automatically mean you get to become president.

You know, in previous elections, the first debate was often won by the candidate who didn't end up winning the election. Al Gore beat George Bush in the first debate in 2000. Walter Mondale was considered by viewers to have won the first debate in 1984.

And you know who won the first debate in 1992? A gentleman named Ross Perot. None of them got to be president.

Americans see other qualities that they want in a president, like decisiveness and toughness, not just debating skills. I think Kerry did himself a lot of good. I think there's going to be a lot of buzz about this debate. I think we've got a real contest on our hands, but people are going to wait and see the next couple of debates before they firmly make up their minds. [CNN, American Morning, 10/1/04]

CNN news anchor Miles O'Brien:


[T]he debates are now set. That obviously is going to be a pivotal moment in this campaign. [CNN, Live From..., 9/21/04]


Well, by now we've seen the numbers, the major post-debate polls indicating the winner was Senator John Kerry over President Bush, but not to sound flip -- or flop, for that matter -- so what? What does Kerry's apparent win in the first of three debates mean for the race for president? [CNN, Live From..., 10/1/04]